ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — In the middle of a room at Missouri Western State University, Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid stands in front of the wide-eyed youngsters, ready to teach.
This is Sunday evening, the first installation meeting of training camp, and Reid is instructing this collection of quarterbacks and rookies the “four verticals” concept, a standard play run by every NFL team that simply calls for four receivers to run “go” routes downfield.
However, nothing is simple with Reid and his voluminous playbook. Fifteen minutes pass, and he’s really diving into the finer points of the play now, explaining everything from the way receivers should release off the line of scrimmage to the way receivers should keep their arms moving as they run the route.
“Man, we spent 15 minutes on this and it’s just the first play,” Mahomes whispered.
Henne, who has been in the league since 2008, was even more amazed at the demonstration in retrospect.
“Everybody knows that play,” Henne said. “And I’m just sitting there like, it’s really not, ‘Just beat your man, get in your spot and that’s it?’”
Not with Reid, and certainly not this year. At 60 years old, Reid has made many millions in his 20-year head coaching career and he even has a Super Bowl title under his belt (as an assistant with the 1996 Green Bay Packers), but he continues to roam the sideline, with observers noting that he seems particularly enthusiastic these days, especially when discussing Mahomes, his second-year quarterback.
They’re not wrong.
“I love teaching — that’s why I got into this,” Reid told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “There’s no better time in my career to do this than right now.”
In Mahomes, several teammates and coaches say Reid has found a quarterback who loves the game to a similar degree, so much so that the 22-year-old — whose father, Pat, played 11 years in Major League Baseball — chose football over baseball, despite the fact that he was good enough as a high school pitcher to be considered a surefire Division I ballplayer and a likely early-round pick in the 2014 MLB draft. Mahomes, however, decided he’d rather light up scoreboards with his arm instead of lighting up radar guns.
“As a quarterback, you have some OK plays and you have some real good ones, but he gets so excited for the good ones you can’t help but get a chuckle out of it,” Reid said. “He’s a young kid that loves to play the game and is highly intelligent, and that is infectious for everybody around him.”
Including Reid himself, who — let’s be clear — has never needed prodding to be around the game he loves.
“I can’t beat him in the facility, even though I’ve tried,” Mahomes said.
One day late last season, Mahomes recalled when he arrived at the Chiefs’ facility at 5:30 on a weekday morning with the sole purpose of being able to say he was the first one there. When he arrived on the coaches’ floor, he saw lights coming from Reid’s office and peeked inside.
“Of course, he was already there,” Mahomes said.
Mahomes didn’t interrupt Reid, who was hard at work. But when he later mentioned to Reid that he’d stopped by, the head coach smirked.
“I knew you came by,” Reid told him. “I’d been there for at least an hour.”
Observers describe their relationship as open and productive, with Reid alternating praise and prodding to keep Mahomes — the son and godson (LaTroy Hawkins) of former professional baseball players — on his toes.
“He’s very respectful — both his dad and LaTroy hammer that,” Reid said. “If you don’t listen, coach is going to kick you in the tail, then you take it. That’s their mentality, that’s how he’s been raised. And then his mom’s tough, too, so he’s been raised the right way, and he can take tough coaching, and that’s not always a given.”
From Mahomes’ perspective, the opportunity to be guided by someone like Reid, who has a long track record for making quarterbacks look good, makes whatever tough instruction the grizzled coach doles out more than worth it.
“He’s there every single day at 4 a.m. at the latest, so you know he’s looked at every single way [to win], and he’s figured out the best way to do things for the betterment of the team,” Mahomes said. “He doesn’t let me be satisfied — if we’re in the meeting room and we’re going through the install with the whole team, he’s gonna ask me a question that I better know, and I’m going to have to answer in front of the whole team.”
Internally, the hope is that Mahomes’ moxie — plus his otherworldly arm strength — will open up route combinations and deep-ball options that haven’t consistently been relied upon in Kansas City in years.
“He’s tried to tailor the offense a little bit for me, as he would with any other quarterback,” Mahomes said. “It’s always good to make the big play, but I’m learning every day to take the small ones and make the best play I can.”
Scheme-wise, the transition from Smith to Mahomes has been smooth. All the stuff the Chiefs ran last year — the misdirection, the jet sweeps, the RPOs — is still in the playbook. But Mahomes showed what the offense could look like under him in the Chiefs’ 27-24 road win over the Denver Broncos in the regular-season finale last December.
After the game, Reid raved about Mahomes, who completed 22 of 35 passes for 284 yards and an interception but looked impressive doing it, despite the touchdown-less line. Mahomes led the Chiefs to a game-winning field goal on their final drive (he was reinserted into the game following a late Denver comeback) in style, completing a variety of difficult throws into tight windows, all from varying arm slots and while avoiding pressure throughout the game. It was a performance that showed exactly why the Chiefs surrendered two first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up 17 spots to select him 10th overall in the 2017 draft.
It was also an outing good enough to convince the Chiefs to ship 34-year-old starter Alex Smith — who had a career year in 2017 — to Washington for a third-round pick and one of the league’s most productive slot corners, Kendall Fuller, and hand Mahomes the reins.
When a quarterback can connect with a receiver at every level of the field — which Mahomes has flashed that he can, even under pressure against Denver — defenses are forced to respect the big play, which means deeper safeties and less-adventurous blitzes. That often opens up things underneath, where the Chiefs feature two proven, elite options in tight end Travis Kelce and running back Kareem Hunt and an underrated slant-ball specialist in $48 million free-agent Sammy Watkins.
If Mahomes develops the way everyone expects him to, and the offensive line — which was inconsistent last season, in part, due to injuries — has gotten better, Reid could craft a dynamic, historic offense. In today’s pass-oriented NFL, that could be the key to Reid securing the Super Bowl title as a head coach that has eluded him for two decades.
But football is funny. The thing about the ’99 St. Louis Rams is that nobody saw it coming. Nobody knew Kurt Warner was future Hall of Famer Kurt Warner. In comparison, there has been all sorts of hype about Mahomes over the past several months, leading some to predict that the Chiefs’ looming offensive explosion could come as early as this year.
The Chiefs, however, have largely done what they can to tamp down Mahomes’ expectations. They love him, but while he’s got the playbook down — “He can pick out pretty much any play in the playbook … apply it to the coverage and know where to go with the football without having install,” Henne says — there will almost certainly be some lows once defensive coordinators get more NFL game tape on him and can exploit his weaknesses.
“He’s got a lot to absorb here,” Reid said. “But he’ll come back and fire again, and I appreciate that.”
Mahomes has consistently shown that, even as recently as Thursday. On one play late in practice, he missed Kelce over the middle with an errant throw. Reid could see Mahomes was annoyed with himself, but he kept his composure, as Reid had instructed him to do, and the very next play, Mahomes unleashed a gorgeous 50-yard-plus bomb to Watkins streaking on a post route for a touchdown.
“That wasn’t even the prime read on that route,” Reid said. “He just put the son of a gun out there because they bit. That’s an alert throw on the route and an alert play by him to see that the safety bit and put it up.”
Reid grinned at the recollection of the play, and in that moment, it became clear that with every laser from his star pupil, every on-field manifestation of the techniques he painstakingly teaches in those daily installation meetings, the teacher who doesn’t need football on paper still realizes how much fun it is.
“[After those throws] I look at my script and go, ‘He’s on fire — let’s get him another one,’” Reid said with a laugh.
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